People have told me that my daughter Nava is an old soul. They say this because — although she is often quiet — when she does speak, the wisdom she espouses is frequently quite remarkable. Also, although Nava often plays alone, she usually appears to be happily engaged in her own magical world.
But Nava doesn't always experience it that way. Sometimes Nava tells me she wishes she played with other children more but is just too shy to make friends. As a mother, this is the kind of comment from your child that can rip your heart out of your chest.
I desperately want to help my daughter feel more included, and yet I also want to honor her unique and precious personality. Nava may be a shy seven-year-old, but I don't want her to conclude that that's a bad thing.
So, I'm sharing the ways I've learned to support my shy child — and I'd greatly appreciate any tips you have to share on this subject as well!
1. Show that others are shy, too.
Nava loves animals, so they're a good medium for our discussions about shyness. We talk about cute fluffy bunnies, deer in a meadow, or a magical unicorn we imagine we might see near a brook, and how those animals are shy at first. They are observant, taking in their surroundings before rushing into new interactions. And who can fault a unicorn for that?
I also read or tell bedtime stories that feature shy main characters who are courageous and kind. Recognizing that others are shy helps Nava feel normal, and even special.
2. Determine if shyness is a personality trait or a lack of confidence.
The brains of extroverts and introverts actually function differently: One needs stimulation from others to become optimally engaged while the other has so much internal stimulation that it easily becomes overwhelmed with too much outside input. Often this is simply how we are born. And neither is superior in any way.
However, shyness can at times be a syndrome beyond introversion, and might be an outward display of an internal conflict. As parents, it's important to decipher which is which. And if it's the latter, here are ways to help your child grow in confidence.
3. Don't criticize shyness.
Often, it can be embarrassing for us as parents when our shy children don't greet others or speak up in conversations. We fear it reflects badly on our parenting and want our children to make a good impression.
However, there's nothing worse that we can say in these situations than, "Don't be shy." This comment is likely to push our children even deeper into their shells. Likewise, apologizing for our child's shyness sends the message that their behavior is wrong or that we are ashamed of them.
4. Model social behavior for shy children.
Our children primarily learn by watching us. Mirror neurons in the brain are specialized cells related to imitation that are most active during childhood. These are the mechanism by which children learn everything from language skills to empathy.
So it's no surprise that shy parents often have shy children — which is the case with Nava and me. Because I am an introvert, I know it's important for me to show Nava how I overcome my shyness and make new friends. Whether it's talking to other moms on the playground or chatting with grocery-store checkout clerks, I know she is watching me and taking mental notes.
5. Allow them to express themselves.
It's also common for shy children to have extrovert parents or siblings, and this can be a symptom of having someone who regularly speaks for them. Nava has a very extroverted big sister who has finished her sentences for her for so many years that Nava got out of the habit of speaking for herself.
Now, I constantly remind my older daughter to let Nava talk, and even practice patience myself when it would be faster to speak on Nava's behalf. It's important that shy children feel like their words matter and they will be heard.
6. Provide social opportunities where they're more likely to be comfortable.
This summer, I enrolled the kids for a week in a boisterous summer camp with 80 children. Nava didn't like it at all. They spent another week in the living room of a friend of mine with six other girls, sewing and making crafts. There, Nava thrived.
When I have a choice, I can help Nava by choosing smaller social settings for her after-school activities, child care, or even the school she attends. I can also talk to her teachers and other caregivers and ask them to look out for moments when Nava might appreciate a little help by bringing her into a group game or pairing her with a compatible child.
7. Support them to change only if they ask for it.
As important as it is that our shy children don't feel like we are telling them to change, sometimes they want to change. Nava specifically asked me for help to overcome her shyness so she could make more friends at school, and I was happy to help.
We did some role-playing in which her sister and I pretended to be kids on the playground and Nava asked us if we wanted to play. I also had Nava write her goals on sticky notes and place them around her room. She wrote, "Be Brave," "Make Friends," and "Speak Up."
My shy child is perfect just the way she is. However, I know there will be many times throughout her childhood that she won't realize this. Although I can't help her completely avoid the ups and downs of growing up, my hope is that I can support her in these small ways that give her more peaceful moments of feeling content within.